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SANJAYA BARU | Updated on April 17, 2014

Tube truths When it comes to news, Indians seem to care only about local events - vivek bendre

It is time Indian news and think tanks paid more attention to the world outside

The 11th century traveller Al Biruni came to India and found its thinking people insular and not particularly curious about the outside world. Yet, India has been at the crossroads of Asia, home to travellers, traders and teachers who roamed the world. Contemporary India is a paradox. It has an elite that is globally linked and open to global influences and yet exhibits a shocking niggardliness when it comes to investing in seeking an Indian view of the world or presenting an Indian view to the world.

With one more foreign correspondent taken off the rolls of a major media group the total number of Indian foreign correspondents is now into single digits. Two years ago a major business newspaper had five foreign correspondents. Today, it has none. The recent slowing down of the economy and the deflation of expectations has forced expenditure cutbacks that have further marginalised spending on gathering and disseminating world news within the Indian media. Television channels running foreign affairs programmes find few viewers and fewer advertisers.

Travelling around the world, one is struck by the complete absence of Indian TV networks in hotel rooms while one finds China Central Television (Chinese television’s global channel) aired in more places. Even Al Jazeera has acquired an international footprint. The global spread of people of Indian origin has created an international market for Indian entertainment, but not yet for Indian news.

When I was in the Prime Minister’s Office I supported journalist Saeed Naqvi’s enthusiastic initiative to get Doordarshan to launch a world news channel but neither were funds forthcoming nor was DD ready to undertake such a massive enterprise.

As a result, news about the world comes to India through other people’s eyes and pens, and news about India is also transmitted by other people — the small band of foreign correspondents resident in New Delhi. Even they operate with such shoestring budgets that the quality of their reporting has sharply gone down.

In India itself news has become so domestically focused, prime time TV is all about elections and local events, that momentous developments around the world hardly get any space or time.

In the decade after India became a nuclear power and was able to sustain an annual average growth rate of over 8 per cent, global media not only took greater interest in India but, more importantly, reported favourably about India’s performance and prospect. As the economy slowed down, as political attitudes in India became more insular and as the West, on the one hand, has become more defensive about its own future, and the East (the Sinosphere) has become more confident, India seems to have fallen between two stools.

There are, however, a few signs of hope. Indian big business is finally willing to invest in research on global issues. At least three Indian business leaders have put their money where their mouth is. Mukesh Ambani leads the league with his support to the Observer Research Foundation (ORF). This think tank has finally hired talented professionals after depending for years on retired diplomats. Anand Mahindra has financed Gateway House, a Mumbai-based outfit that is slowly finding its feet. Avantha Group’s Gautam Thapar has lent support to Aspen India, which has been organising important meetings. Both Gateway House and Aspen India lag behind ORF in terms of their talent pool of fulltime researchers.

New Delhi has several government funded think tanks but each one of them finds itself financially constrained and the more dynamic ones are desperately reaching out to the private sector and foreign foundations for support. Where a think tank is funded by a particular ministry of the government, bureaucratic interference, protocol and procedure are stifling individual creativity, initiative and talent. This is at least one reason why intellectually active scholars are willing to work for foreign-funded institutions. The number of researchers from government-funded outfits applying for jobs with new global think tanks that have an India centre is just one indicator of this nascent trend.

Clearly, both the Indian media and think tanks need to find ways in which they can find the funds needed to pay more attention to the world in a manner that will attract good talent and enable them to produce material that would find an audience.

However, even if this financial gap is bridged, what about the mind space of an insular elite? The handful of foreign correspondents now on the payroll of media organisations complain that they no longer get space in print or time on air. Their editors tell them that the audience is just not interested.

So, it is not surprising that the news of the disappearance of the Malaysian airliner MH370 took an entire 48 hours to surface on prime time news on most channels, even though hundreds of Indians now travel regularly on these routes, from Indian cities to the west coast of the US or to destinations within East Asia.

Ironically, even as India has become a more open economy, the Indian elite have become more insular in their interests — or at least that is what those funding the media and think tanks seem to think. Hopefully, in months to come, as the Indian economy begins to revive, interest in the outside world will also revive and the nascent growth of Indian expertise on world affairs will blossom. But, when will the continuing atrophy of foreign correspondents get reversed?

SANJAYA BARU’S book The Accidental Prime Minister will be published later this year

>sanjaya_baru@hotmail.com

Published on March 21, 2014

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